Category Archives: Early Christianity

Stark Truth Continues

Rodney "Chuckles" Stark

Continuing our discussion of Rodney Stark’s super-mondo book from the 1990’s, “The Rise of Christianity” — the discussion in which I get to do all the discussing, as is my preferred interpersonal method, — I’ll remind both of you that it’s in some ways an “outsider” work: a sociologist bringing the perspective of modern sociology to the study of the first few centuries of the Jesus movement.

Stark observes that people convert to new cults when they have relatively fewer meaningful social ties outside the cult than within. And converts tend to be “overwhelmingly from irreligious backgrounds.” When Stark studied the Moonies in 1960’s San Francisco, he noticed they had little success converting people away from other religions. Skeptics join cults.

And where do we find the most skeptics, ripe to sign up to some new movement whose members now include some old college bros? Among the affluent. Stark’s method is to write his unfolding argument as a set of propositions, such as: “Religious skepticism is most prevalent among the more privileged.” It’s not skepticism, per se, that makes people ripe for conversion but rather another corollary of affluence and education: interest in new cultures and ideas. In a word, curiosity.

Sociology reminds us just how sheeplike we are. At the moment when I feel I’m making my most bold and original statements, some sociologist shows up to prove I’m doing just what’s expected. Here I am — curator of The God Project Dot Net — a religious skeptic from an affluent background endowed with a natural curiosity, with social ties to the Roman Catholic church, and what do I do? Become a Roman Catholic. Baa baa.

Back to Stark. Using an econo-sociological language that seems odd — and oddly beautiful — applied to spiritual themes, he talks about “religious compensators,” which are analogous to money, i.e., something people want they are willing to pay for. His principles are (paraphrasing): poor people accept religious compensators for things that are scarce (like, say, status and wealth), but anybody may accept them for things nobody gets (like eternal life or justice).

“Regardless of power, persons and groups will tend to accept religious compensators for rewards that do not exist in this world.”

Religions like Christianity reframe death as its opposite: eternal life. To the extent people fear their own non-existence, they may buy into religion regardless of personal wealth. Which fits nicely with my own pet idea that Darwin didn’t cause secularism — antibiotics did. People who don’t fear death aren’t buying what religion offers.

Stark paints a picture of the first-century Roman world as religiously anemic, secular and accommodating. Roman religion was something like mainline Christianity in America today: very undemanding. From whom little is demanded, little is surrendered. People get what they give and religious groups full of twice-yearly non-participants aren’t giving much.

Which leads, of course, to another proposition:

“New religious movements mainly draw their converts from the ranks of the religiously inactive and discontented, and those affiliated with the most accommodated (worldly) religious communities.”

Jews in the diaspora, Hellenized by Alexander’s empire, living in a secular culture untaxed by the pagan gods, were ripe for a new movement that demanded active, full-bodied participation. We might say the same of secular people in the U.S. today being rich targets for conversion to evangelical churches which (believe me) are a lot more demanding/giving than those empty-pewed mainstream parishes.

The sociological proposition is that groups rely on the freely donated efforts of their members to thrive. They also are hurt by “free riders” — that is, people who like the benefits but won’t contribute. Stark’s insight is that it’s actually the most demanding groups that do best by raising the bar for membership so high free riders go away. Think about modern evangelical churches: they demand Sundays, of course, but also want you to do Bible study, prayer groups, personal ministries, job fairs, basketball coaching, member outreach, phone answering, brownie baking, party going with your kids and their friends, set-up and clean-up, donations … it never ends. People who stay in such groups tend to give a lot, which means they also get a lot from the others. So it was, Stark believes, among the early Christians.

And then, of course, we get to the women … next time. Happy holidays.


The Jesus Hoax?

"Who's your daddy?"

Did Jesus exist?

Certainly, most people in the past 2,000 years have assumed Jesus of Nazareth was a historical figure. Virtually all scholars in the field believe he walked the earth. But since modern textual studies emerged in the 19th century, demonstrating just how interpretive and — well — constructed the primary witnesses to Jesus’ human life were, plenty of people have wondered aloud whether the whole Jesus thing is just a pious or political fiction.

Is it possible there was no human Jesus?

A historian of any ancient figure would start by looking to the sources. There are no physical artifacts of Jesus himself, his followers, or even the Christian movement until the late 2nd century (around 120-130 years after Jesus died). The evidence is entirely literary.

Outside Christian circles, there are just a few scattered references (Pliny the Younger, Tactitus, Josephus) that do little more than show there were indeed Christians who followed a person (presumably human) called Christ. The only real biographical sources are the Christians Gospels.

Moreover, no original written documents exist. The evidence consists of copies of copies of copies made centuries later. There is a tiny fragment of the Gospel of John pulled from an Egyptian garbage dump in the last century that is dated to, say, 120 or 130 C.E. So we can safely say documents about this “Jesus” character existed 100 years after his “death.”

Historians make the convincing case that nobody from that era (other than Roman Emperors and celebrity poets) has ANY physical or literary evidence attesting to their existence. There is more reason to think Jesus existed than 99.9% of the region’s population.

But ignoring that. What do Jesus deniers claim?

There’s a long-running web hub and discussion forum inspired by the tireless efforts of British atheist Kenneth “Jesus Never Existed” Humphreys that offers the following:

  • Evidence is too scanty — as scholars have lamented for centuries, why don’t the great writers of the period, such as Philo and Seneca, say anything at all about Jesus?
  • Some evidence is contradictory — for example, the genealogies for Jesus given in Matthew and Luke don’t agree at all and seem fictional
  • Evidence is self-serving — the Gospels and other Christian scriptures contain material that legitimizes the Christian movement; i.e., the 12 disciples mirror the 12 tribes of Israel and allow the Christian cult to claim legitimacy
  • Christianity is a hodge-podge of external ideas that required no founder — messages of love and faith and God-men can be found in Stoicism, Mithraism, Judaism, Egyptian religion, and so on
  • Early Christianity was chaotic — the documented scattershot of beliefs, including all those Gnosticisms and neo-Judaisms, as well as a certain lack of interest in the human Jesus, shows there was no real focus from the beginning, aka, no Jesus

Like John William Draper in the 19th century, Humphreys is really using his thesis to bash the Church, which he calls a “tragedy” and an “active agent in destroying knowledge” and “an industry of deceit.” And so on.

Focusing on the Jesus question itself, however, is more difficult. No doubt early Christians were self-serving, imaginative, fictionalizing, chaotic, swayed by all manner of local beliefs . . . but does any of that prove Jesus himself is a fiction?

Extra-Crispy Cynic

Faux Lucian

Lucian of Samosata was a popular second-century wandering speaker, poet, wit and prose machine. Over 80 works are attributed to him (some of which, as is true with most ancient writers, he surely did not write). And he’s remembered today for a fascinating little aside on the earliest Christians slipped into a short biography of a cynic philosopher named Peregrinus, who set himself on fire after the closing ceremonies of the Olympic Games of 165 A.D.

Lucian was a professional rhetorician who toured the Mediterranean giving improvised lectures on the art of legal persuasion, the good life, human psychology, and so on. Somehow, he became affluent and well-known.

His second-best known work is a proto-novel call “A True Story,” which was not true and has some fantastical elements like interplanetary warfare. It may be the first science fiction story ever.

Now, Lucian was not a Christian, nor was he known to be particularly religious. He was of a type we recognize in the West today: a weary, cynical, well-educated jaw-boner who didn’t believe in much but got real joy from being the center of attention. Like a 2,000 year old prequel to Conan O’Brien.

But he did live in the earliest centuries of the small and growing cult of Christ. His observations in “The Passing of Peregrinus” are among the earliest non-Christian impressions of the cult that exist, written within a century of Paul’s lifetime. Precious words.

Lucian’s impressions of Peregrinus are cold. He thought of the dead man as an extra-crispy phony: “After turning into everything for a sake of notoriety . . . here at last he has turned into fire.” Sizzle.

Like Galen, Lucian apparently thought of Christians as being naive, unsophisticated, larval communists:

“They [i.e., Christians] scorn all possessions without distinction and treat them as community property. They accept such things on faith alone, without any evidence. So if a fraudulent and cunning person who knows how to take advantage of a situation comes among them, he can make himself rich in a short time.”

But he granted them a touching, if childish, freedom from fear and loneliness:

“Having convinced themselves that they are immortal and will live forever, the poor wretches despise death and most willingly give themselves to it. Moreover, that first lawgiver of theirs [i.e., Jesus] persuaded them that they are all brothers the moment they transgress and deny the Greek gods and begin worshiping that crucified sophist and living by his laws.”

Peregrinus himself was a pagan who converted to Christianity and then back. Lucian considered him a glory-seeking no-talent, an ancient version of some schmuck on MTV’s “Jersey Shore.” A more sympathetic picture, unearthed recently by Roger Pearse in his blog, appears in a work by Aulus Gellius:

“[Peregrinus was] a man of dignity and fortitude, living in a hut outside the city [i.e., Athens] …. I heard him say many things that were in truth helpful and noble.”

Galen on the Early Christians

All this recent talk of Rapture and Mormons leads me to wonder aloud: “What did non-Christians think of the early Christians in the Roman Empire? What was their rep?

The Roman doctor and philosopher Galen coincided with these early years. Living in the late second century, he was surgeon to the gladiators and later personal physician to the Emperor Marcus Aurelius, also a philosopher. Galen systematized medicine to such an extent that he was the single authority on human anatomy and diseases until the Renaissance.

Living in Rome in that period, he would have seen — and heard about — Christians. And he did. His medical writings make four references to this young sect, as well as a few to Jews.

On the negative tip, Galen thought Christians were too quick to accept ideas on faith rather than through reason and experiment, probably because they were not sufficiently smart and/or educated:

Most people are unable to follow any demonstrative argument consecutively, hence they need parables, and benefit from them, just as now we see the people called Christians drawing their faith from parables.

And yet, these Christians were not merely credulous. There was something admirable about the way they lived:

They include not only men but also women who refrain from cohabiting all through their lives; and they also number individuals who, in self-discipline and self-control in matters of food and drink, and in their keen pursuit of justice, have attained a pitch not inferior to that of genuine philosophers.

Am I the only one who thinks a good analogy to the way the Romans viewed early Christians is the way modern Americans view Mormons?

Defining Dissonance Down

Schweitzer: Not a Cryptographer

The recent rash of fringe-group Evangelicals who see the Bible as a decoder ring to the Rapture should not surprise us. Christianity itself is based on the premise that texts have a hidden meaning that is only gradually revealed in history.

We here at The God Project Dot Net don’t think it’s going too far to say the tenets of our own Christian creed can best be explained as: A creative attempt to resolve extreme cognitive dissonance by finding secret codes in inherited Jewish texts.

And we didn’t start this — our Jewish friends were there first. Any bro who can claim the ludicrously X-rated “Song of Solomon” as a chaste call to worship is clearly master of, um, clever interpretation.

First, the cognitive dissonance. This is a term in social psychology, defined by Stanford’s Leon Festinger in the 1950s. It refers to the observation that people who receive new information that contradicts a strong belief will resolve the tension.

Earliest Christians had a massive whack of dissonance when they perceived Jesus was the Jewish Messiah (Christ) — yet knew he was a crucified criminal. Paul raises this point directly in Galatians 3:13, quoting Deuteronomy 27:26: “Cursed is he who hangs upon a tree.”

Another problem was that the Jewish Scriptures nowhere explicitly talk about a Messiah who will suffer and die. To the extent they cared, Jews anticipated a heroic Messiah — one like Daniel, who might lead an army against Rome.

What’s an early Jew-for-Jesus to do?

Luckily, the TNK (Hebrew Bible) is marvelously flexible and welcomes acrobatic reinterpretation. Suddenly, passages in Isaiah 52 about a “suffering servant” (not “Messiah”) turn into Messianic prophecy. Psalms quoted by Jesus in the Gospels are now evidence of their own anticipation.

Problem solved. Albert Schweitzer once famously said people who are looking for the Historical Jesus seem always just to find themselves.

People who want to locate something hidden in the Scriptures inevitably find what they are looking for. But is it there?

Psst! Wanna Hear a Secret?

If the Da Vinci Code taught us anything — and it did, it taught us many, many things, most of them wrong — we say, if Dan Brown’s rollercoaster-iffic Da Vinci Code and its pre-clone Angels & Demons taught us anything, it’s that humans love solved codes. Love to feel they are (a) smarter than other people, and thus (b) have secret saving knowledge dumber people do not.

As we ponder the recent failed prophecies of Family Radio’s Harold Camping, we are reminded that this attraction to secrecy and special knowledge has been a part of Christianity (and Judaism) for centuries.

Orthodox Christianity was in some ways a reaction against this impulse, as apparently widely-held beliefs were declared “heresy” after the fact by Church Fathers like Irenaeus of Lyon. (Brown got this part right.)

Irenaeus’ special target was a loose group of sects known as the Gnostics. The Greek word “gnosis” means “knowledge,” and these groups were known to emphasize certain “secret teachings” (see the opening of the celebrated Gnostic “Gospel of Thomas“), which are highly coded and revealed only to the elect. In fact, it’s secret knowledge which saves, not anything so ordinary (orthodox) as faith or grace or going to your First Communion.

Gnosticism shares some family traits with Zoroastrianism, Jewish Kabbalah, Greek philosophy, even modern New Age spirituality. And — in its emphasis on being an insider, on knowing the Secret Truth — with modern Evangelicals like Hal Lindsay, Pat Roberts and, yes, our old, old, old friend Harold Camping. (Did we say old?)

Here’s how the Gnostic vibe is described by Fr. Brian Daley, S.J., in his groovy series of lectures on “Early Christianity and the First Christians” —

Gnosticism is, says Daley:

“Religion for the enlightened insider. Religion that is based on information and revelation that isn’t generally available to the wider population — but which comes from a group and from a founder and is communicated to those who seek it out.

“Gnostic religion is essentially revisionary thinking — the kind of thinking which enables … someone who learns the tradition to see that much of the ordinary concerns of their contemporaries are in fact based on illusion.”

Gnostics purposely oppose the mass market:

“Turning a good deal of it on its head, devaluing some of its practices and seeing that the core of a person’s welfare and salvation came from knowing things right, getting things right.”